Logrolling in West St. Paul821news1
Brian Miller's house is a thing of beauty. The restored Victorian sits on a one-acre lot atop a bluff in the heart of St. Paul's West Side. A vine-covered porch in back looks out over big trees; next door is a huge grassy lot, future site of some of the more high-priced homes this side of Summit Avenue. Miller is an attorney, a former private developer, and--according to those who've dealt with him--a man who tends to get what he wants.
If you threw a rock from Miller's yard, you might hit Luis Lopez's roof. He lives in the Concord Square Apartments complex, a set of ochre-and-brown three-story walkups that dominates the intersection of Concord and State Streets. Built cheaply in the '70s, the buildings have been through a series of investor-owners, most of whom didn't seem to care much for maintenance. Last year the federal government took over, but there are still leaking roofs, torn screens, dirty and threadbare carpets, and a boiler system that gives out for days at a time. Rents are cheap and there's Spanish spoken all around, which is why most of the tenants live here.
If the neighborhood powers-that-be have their way, Lopez and the 60 or so other families in the complex will soon have to move. Under a plan to be voted on by the St. Paul City Council as early as this week, Concord Square is to be razed to make room for a snazzy new townhouse development--featuring relatively low rents, but with only 46 units instead of the current 116. The whole matter has become entangled in a controversy over public money, local governance, and the power of people related through blood, politics, and financial interest.
In the Twin Cities' urban geography, the West Side is something of a separate universe. Bounded by a river and a suburb and overlooking downtown, the area features fancy bluff homes and long stretches of blue-collar bungalows. Historically it has been an immigrant's port-of-entry; many families have been here for generations, and local loyalties run deep.
Today, the neighborhood is officially represented downtown by the West Side Citizens Organization (WSCO), one of St. Paul's more powerful district councils. It has a friend in City Council member Dave Thune, who may be running for mayor next year; over the years, WSCO has called the shots on most major public investments in the neighborhood. It has also spun off a development corporation, the Neighborhood Economic Development Alliance (NeDA). And that's where the fighting starts.
For most of the years since its founding, NeDA's business has consisted in good part of buying and redeveloping properties previously held by Brian Miller, for years its executive director and now its development manager. He sold the group what's now known as Wabasha Center--a building that houses WSCO's offices and a day care center--as well as the former Riverview Hospital site. That site, as it happens, sits on the bluff overlooking Concord Square; NeDA's and Miller's goal is to build up to eight homes there that would sell in the $150,000 range. Also part of the package were three Victorian homes, one of which Brian Miller has renovated as his own residence. The other two were restored for close to $500,000, of which slightly less than half came from city subsidies, and sold to people with connections to NeDA. Some call the area "Millerville."
The way critics see it, Miller has been using his development experience, his legal background, and his forceful style to snooker neighborhood and city officials into his pet projects. "He talks down to people a lot," says Doug Ruiz, a WSCO board member who's also done contract work for NeDA and regularly challenges both organizations. "He deals mostly from intimidation."
"Yeah," responds Miller, "I'm 6' 5'' and weigh 225 pounds, and my mind runs fairly fast and usually keeps up with my mouth. But I don't know for what reason folks might find me intimidating. That is not my intent. My intent is to see positive things happen in the community." Miller says he never got a penny more out of the properties than he put in, and no government agency has yet found otherwise. In the case of the Wabasha Center, the federal government granted Miller and NeDA an official waiver of conflict-of-interest regulations.
"They tell us it's all perfectly legal," says Lydia Belair, another WSCO board member who questions the relationship between her group and NeDA. "But it still doesn't feel right." She says the same goes for the current debate over Concord Square. NeDA and WSCO first got involved with that one more than a year ago, shortly after HUD took over the property. There was a hasty series of meetings, most with no public input--the groups said time was too short--culminating in a proposal that HUD give the complex to NeDA rather than selling it at a competitive auction. Officials say the groups felt they had to move fast to deal with what they'd long considered a problem property.
The plan didn't fly, and WSCO was told to start a "community input" process instead. After about eight months, members and staffers of the group had held meetings, conducted surveys, and asked community members to rate the various redevelopment proposals being entertained. And then WSCO voted again to endorse NeDA.
"We knew it from the start," says Belair. "The minute the project was opened up for proposals, we knew that NeDA was going to find some way to get back in there." After all, Belair and other critics note, many of the people charged with gathering "community input" were not necessarily neutral on the matter: More than half the members of the WSCO board who voted to give NeDA the nod had personal or business relationships with the development group--having been on its payroll or board, having sold houses for and from Miller or NeDA, and the like. Julie Cruz, the co-chairwoman of WSCO's Concord Square steering committee, is the cousin of Lupe Serrano, NeDA's executive director. Tom Sanchez, the city Planning and Economic Development staffer who deals with the project, is Cruz's cousin.
Sanchez, however, sees no problem. He says neither he nor Cruz stand to gain financially from whatever happens with Concord Square. Cruz echoes that assessment, adding that "you have to remember, this is a small community, and people tend to stay for a long time. We have a lot of large families, a lot of people who are related. We've decided that if we want citizen participation, we're going to have to put up with that. You can't make everyone abstain who is someone's relative." As for other potential conflicts, she says, "There's something in the bylaws, but we're taking a look at that."
NeDA's proposal for Concord Square still is no shoo-in. There are a lot of questions, Miller acknowledges, over things like financing--more than half of the projected $4.5 million price tag would require government assistance--and the exact number and location of units. It's also possible that the City Council will want to take a closer look at the three other groups that have submitted proposals, including the St. Paul Urban League. Its plan scored highest at community meetings, and there have been charges of racism over WSCO's decision not to endorse it: One member of the steering committee says other members told him the Urban League would "bring blacks into the community." (Cruz, whose children are black, says comments like that would not have been allowed to play into the decision.)
The biggest challenge for the NeDA proposal, though, are Concord Square residents, who have been getting rambunctious lately. Surveys conducted as part of the "community-input" process showed that more than 90 percent of the tenants interviewed wanted to live on the West Side, and almost 80 percent wanted to stay right at Concord Square. Some tenants have hooked up with a group called Community Stabilization Project, which advocates against demolition of low-income housing. And last week, the Concord Square Residents Council went to court with HUD over the condition of the property--claiming that, in effect, HUD had let the apartments go to pieces in deference to WSCO and NeDA.
A key piece of evidence in the lawsuit is a letter sent to the city of St. Paul last summer by WSCO, NeDA, and the area business organization Riverview Economic Development Alliance (REDA). The groups asked that for the time being, Concord Square units that became vacant not be re-rented, and that no repairs be made beyond "health and safety [matters] in occupied units." This, they explained, would help "preserve the broadest prossible options, including demolition of a part or all of this development."
There is evidence that HUD heeded that request--and thus potentially violated its mandate under federal law to keep its properties occupied as well as "safe and decent." Besides the residents, plaintiffs in the suit include a homeless man, and another man who says he remains stuck in an efficiency while the rest of his family lives in a one-bedroom. Both say they wanted to rent at Concord Square, but were told that no new leases were being issued. As for the repairs, the lawsuit notes that things got so bad the city of St. Paul revoked Concord Square's certificate of occupancy back in May due to a long list of code violations. (The deadline for repairs expired in June, but city officials say they're "working with" HUD on the matter.)
At a court hearing Friday, HUD argued it had spent more than $200,000 on repairs since it took over the complex, and announced that it had now committed to spend $300,000 fixing two of the four buildings and moving all the tenants there. That money, of course, would go down the drain if Concord Square were razed; HUD might also pay for demolition, to the tune of another $200,000. "It's ironic," says Howard Goldman, director of multi-family housing atHUD's regional office in Minneapolis, "but we're [making the repairs] because the city is making us do it. And we'd like some credit for working with the city and the neighborhood on this" instead of selling the complex to the highest bidder.
The way Lopez sees it, though, fixing up the buildings is what HUD and everyone else should have been concerned with all along. "We want some respect," he says during one of his regular rounds of the neighbors, "and not to be shuffled around like a deck of cards."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.